PW Daily for Booksellers (April 3, 2003)

What's So Funny About God? John Spalding Explains

Has the war got you down? Does the moral uncertainty of "preemptive" invasion make you queasy? Do you find yourself praying--and you're not religious? Fear not: you're not alone. Just check out the action on, where people of all faiths have gathered online to discuss the ramifications of our latest war.

While you're there, take a look at the columns of John Spalding, Beliefnet's resident humorist, whose work has been collected in the recently published volume, A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City. It's a short, quip-laden look at the more bizarro side of American spirituality, considering everything from trepanning (drilling holes in your head to reach your third eye), homegrown Gardens of Eden in Kansas, to the now fashionable pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the Christian Wrestling Federation.

PW Daily's Edward Nawotka, a Catholic military school graduate and Jesuit educated, confronted, errrrrr, spoke with Spalding about making fun of the Almighty.

PWD: Do you not fear God?

JS: When someone asks me that I reply, 'Does God not want us to laugh?'

PWD: Is it hard to be funny about religion? Because all the priests I grew up with didn't strike me as all that funny.

JS: I think a lot of people find it hard to be funny about religion: it's too easy to condescend. A lot of writers stay away because they don't care about religion or it's so serious that they stay away from it. I grew up in the Protestant church, and it struck me that it's so human to be susceptible to folly that there's a humorousness about it. I think that I'm able to have enough respect for the people I write about and at the same time I let them speak for themselves.

PWD: Is humor something that's essential to a religious experience?

JS: I think that when religion is authentic, it's close to what human experience is--which is funny. The more taboo you view it from a humor perspective, the more inhuman it is. I love going out and exploring what people believe and showing how their belief systems shape their lives. A lot of religion talks about faith as subscribing to a lot of doctrines or beliefs or ascribing power to religious figures. Often we think of doctrines--but it's really about the heart. My view of faith is that it's something that is within us.

PWD: But you never come out and really say what you believe in the book.

JS: I'm not inclined to come right out and say what my beliefs are in my writing principally because, well, that'd make for bad humor. Another reason is that I like the indirect approach. I have a soft spot for Aquinas' notion of via negativa--the negative way to God. Aquinas said that we can't know positively what the essence of God is. We only know what we know about God by determining what God isn't.

I'm also fond of Kierkegaard's notion of indirect communication, which he got from Socrates. The idea that truth is subjective, not something we can impart objectively. It's Socrates' belief that teachers help students realize the truth for themselves, rather than just swallow what they're told dogmatically. Humor, I think, is a great way to communicate indirectly, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Aquinas and Kierkegaard seemed to really appreciate the mystery and awe of life and faith. I like the idea that faith often raises more questions than it answers. That just seems to be the way life is. Yet the most successful faiths, in terms of growth and wealth, are often the one's that paint faith in simple, black-and-white terms, full of answers and certainty.

PWD: Your item on attending the annual meeting of the Christian Booksellers Association is rather withering.

JS: Jesus's teachings seem to say to me that it's about how you treat one another. The further religion gets to what faith is about, the more elaborate it gets. CBA says it is a ministry, but if you spend time with them, it's all about making money. Its become an institutional thing with its own interests.

PWD: Has your faith been strengthened or diminished by exploring the fringes of religion?

JS: I like people who are a little different. Our society has a way of making us all the same. The market has decided what our options are and there's such a great pressure to conform.

A lot of people would dismiss Pete Halverson, the guy in Fear and Trepanation [the guy who got a hole drilled in his head]. I wanted to go out and meet this guy who really did this. He turns out to be a really smart guy, and his reasons for what he did have all the internal consistencies of most world views. I'm fascinated by the thinking that led to it.

PWD: So does the search for God or the pilgrimage ever end?

JS: It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.